No other prime minister has brought such shame on us

In the annals of British ignominy, no prime minister has sunk so low as Mr Blair

Andreas Whittam Smith

10 May 2004

In the House of Commons last week: "What reports has the minister received from external organisations about the way in which detainees [in Iraq] have been handled?" Mr Ingram, Armed Forces minister: "To date, I have received no such reports." Yet over the weekend a Downing Street spokesman said: "The International Committee of the Red Cross showed the Government a copy of the report in February to enable the Government to comment and take action."

Whether the minister, Adam Ingram, was lying as part of a cover-up or displaying his ignorance is such an everyday question regarding Mr Blair and his government that one notes it and passes on. In any case, via the internet, I had already discovered the truth about the Red Cross report before Downing Street owned up. It is an analysis of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by "US, British and other countries' forces". It specifically drew the attention of the coalition forces to a number of serious violations of international humanitarian law.

The Government will be telling us next that it had no knowledge of the report by the American general Antonio M Taguba on alleged abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. General Taguba briefed military commanders about his findings on 12 March. Having been put on notice by the Red Cross's comments on Basra, where British troops are stationed, it is implausible that British officials and officers working at the American headquarters in Baghdad did not ask or were not told what General Taguba had found. Was knowledge of this second report bottled up and not passed back to London? Unlikely.

The Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary, Mr Hoon, and the Army's most senior officer, General Sir Michael Jackson, Chief of General Staff, didn't need the Daily Mirror to tell them that atrocities were being committed on their watch. What did they know? And what did they do about it? Of course they want us to think that any such crimes against humanity were committed by soldiers so very far down the chain of command that they couldn't possibly have been aware of what was going on. But I am afraid it isn't like that at all.

A preliminary answer to the question what did they know, or what should they have known, can be given. Read the words. "Ill-treatment during capture was frequent" (Red Cross). "Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees" (Taguba).

Where mistreatment took place included the former secret police office in Basra (Red Cross). Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time (Taguba). Being paraded naked in front of other detainees and guards, sometimes with women's underwear over the head (Red Cross). Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet (Taguba). Beating with hard objects (including guns), slapping, punching, kicking with knees or feet on various parts of the body (Red Cross).

Where did all this start? With Mr Blair's friend and ally, the President of the United States, George Bush. Mr Bush decided, for instance, that all the Guantanamo prisoners were "unlawful combatants" and therefore outside the ambit of the Geneva Convention. In fact the coalition appears to have created a gulag stretching from Afghanistan through Iraq and ending in Guantanamo Bay, where "undesirables" can be held without charge, without rights, without dignity, without proper rations, without adequate medical attention and can be mistreated for as long as Stalin, sorry I mean Messrs Bush and Blair, decide.

Mr Bush even boasted about it. In his 2003 State of the Union address he said that more than 3,000 suspected terrorists "have been arrested in many countries. And many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem for the United States." Isn't Belmarsh prison in London part of this same gulag?

Here is another question about what ministers knew: were they aware that in April 2003, the US Defence Department approved interrogation techniques for use at the Guantanamo Bay prison - where a number of British citizens were held - that allow detainees to be subjected to psychological techniques meant to open them up, disorient or put them under stress? That this involves reversing the normal sleep patterns of detainees and exposing them to heat, cold and "sensory assault," including loud music and bright lights. Some prisoners could be made to stand for four hours at a time. Questioning a prisoner without clothes is allowed if he is alone in his cell. There is not much distance between these "rules" and what the ghastly photographs from Abu Ghraib prison display.

This is what Mr Blair's policies have produced. I cannot think of a prime minister who has brought greater disgrace on this country - not Eden, who led us into the Suez disaster nearly 50 years ago, not Chamberlain even, with the Munich agreement to his name, not Salisbury, who took Britain to war against the Boer farmers in southern Africa. In the annals of British ignominy, no prime minister has sunk so low as Mr Blair.